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Movie extras worry they'll be replaced by artificial intelligence


Some TV and film background actors worry that they'll be replaced by AI. It's an issue at the heart of the labor standoff between Hollywood studios and the Screen Actors Guild. NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn reports.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Alexandria Rubalcaba (ph) is a full-time background actor in Los Angeles on the set of the Disney+ show "WandaVision" during the pandemic, the production crew told her to report to a tractor trailer on set. All the other background actors and extras had to do the same.

ALEXANDRIA RUBALCABA: They kind of wrangled everybody together, took them into a trailer and, one by one, had us scanned.

ALLYN: She says her face and body were being scanned by a series of cameras on metal rigs behind glass.

RUBALCABA: Have your hands out. Have your hands in. Look this way. Look that way. Let us see your scared face. Let us see your surprised face. Just basically going through different emotions.

ALLYN: About 15 minutes later, a digital replica of Rubalcaba was created. She doesn't know what it will be used for or if it will be ever used at all. If it is used, she won't be getting paid for it. How the latest AI technology will be deployed to make movies is a key issue in the ongoing actors strike with Hollywood studios. Rubalcaba makes about $180 a day. She's worried about losing that.

RUBALCABA: AI is eventually going to weed out background, and they're not going to have any use for background actors anymore.

ALLYN: The group representing the studios say that is not their intention. The studios say signing up for the job means your AI likeness could be used in the future. The Screen Actors Guild says their members should know how AI will be used before they take on an acting gig. Andrew Susskind is an associate professor in Drexel University's film department. He says the rapid development of AI tools has the whole industry on edge.

ANDREW SUSSKIND: The actors, extras and the writers are right to see this moment as their best chance to set up what the rules would be in the use of AI.

ALLYN: Five background actors interviewed by NPR all said they were caught off guard in recent months by having to undergo body scans by studios. Rebecca Safier is a Los Angeles-based based background actor. She was afraid to say no.

REBECCA SAFIER: Because you don't know what's going to get back to casting. You don't know if they're going to, like, call up casting and say, oh, this person was being difficult and maybe not say why. Then maybe they won't hire you again because that's the way the system works.

ALLYN: Big-name actors stand to make good money by licensing out their digital likeness. The Screen Actors Guild is all for that. But it's different for background actors who aren't famous. Some say hyper-realistic AI will make them disposable or decimate their earnings. Background actor Katrina Sherwood recently refused to be scanned by a studio.

KATRINA SHERWOOD: I always said, well, you know, I'm not going to consent to that because I wasn't hired to do a body scan today. And if you're willing to give me 100% increase in my day rate, I would be open to that. And, of course, no one ever took me up on it.

ALLYN: Drexel professor Susskind says many actors get their start by doing background work. Others make a career out of it. But he says with big studios under financial pressure like never before, using digital clones could save lots of money.

SUSSKIND: If they could replicate through AI, imagine, you know, ballroom scenes, party scenes, any scenes that needed, you know, tons of extras, not paying $180 per day plus meals plus costuming.

ALLYN: Studio representatives declined NPR's interview requests, but actor Rubalcaba says she has this message to strike negotiators.

RUBALCABA: But just be fair to the little guy. Background actors are more than willing to give everything they have. So be appreciative of that and be fair, not unreasonable.

ALLYN: AI is one of the main sticking points for writers, as well as actors, in what is the biggest Hollywood shutdown since the 1960s.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, Los Angeles.

MARTÍNEZ: And just a note - many NPR staffers are members of SAG-AFTRA but were under a different contract.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.